What to Watch Out for when buying transistor radios

Knowledge is power, but all too often we gain our knowledge by making mistakes. In this section, I will point out common things to watch for in any old transistor radio, and then, for several Zenith models, specific traits that you need to be aware of when buying. I hope that this helps to give you the power to make good choices, and ultimately, to build a better collection at a far lower expenditure. This list is not intended to be all-inclusive and your comments are welcomed.

Basic considerations for all models

Here are some general things to watch out for that will harm the appearance and lower the value of any transistor radio:

Chips and hairline cracks usually at the corners where the halves meet
Corrosion to the battery contacts due to battery leaks
Corrosion to the metal stand
Dents to any metal parts, especially grills
Heavy scratching to plastic/nylon surfaces
Broken parts like the little tabs on battery doors that are broken off

These things have a positive impact on a radios appearance and value:

All the lettering is clear and sharp
Paper labels are still attached and clean
The body is scratch free and still has luster
All metal parts are dent and corrosion free
Color is not faded or yellowed
Good working condition
All original parts with no repairs
Scarce models or colors

The following Zenith radios have specific things that are typical to that model to watch out for:

Royal 50’s
On the first two versions, watch out for cracks to the large tuning dial. Also, the top front corners should still be pointed if the radio has not been dropped. Corrosion to the metal parts of the model H is common. If they have the carrying case still in one piece that is a bonus.
On the model L, pay attention to the metal grill and watch for dents or scratches. The condition of the metal Zenith nameplate at the top shows the first signs of wear. The clear tuning lens cover also often is scratched.

Royal 200’s
These large radios were made out of fragile plastic, not nylon. Therefore, so many have suffered chips and cracks as a result of a drop or fall. Also, many of the tuning and volume knobs have lost their gold metal “bright”.

Royal 250’s
The low cost polystyrene cabinet often suffered chips at the corners. Also, the long metal nameplate on the front right side is easily scratched and dented.

Royal 275’s
The silver faceplate by the knobs would receive most of the wear and would lose its plating.

Royal 300’s
The faceplate is made of thin metal and was prone to dents and scratches. Most examples found today have some degree of damage there.

Royal 400’s
The large grills were subject to damage by the snap of their leather case. That would either dent them or damage the paint. The metal nameplate on the bottom often would come unglued and be missing. Also, watch out for a chip at the top right corner of the front half.  For some reason, this is where most of the chipped cabinets occured.

Royal 500’s

Being the first transistor model makes these of special interest to collectors. The real draw is to find the earliest serial #. The earlier, the more valuable!
Zenith made three different chassis, some with Texas Instrument transistors (7xt40), some with Sylvania transistors (7xt40z1), and a few with Raytheon transistors (7xt40z). There is no real hard data to be found on the how many of each chassis type was produced, but through my observations I would guess about 65% were 7xt40, 35% were 7xt40z1, and less than 1% were 7xt40z! (I would be interested in hearing your findings). So find out which chassis the radio has to better determine its value.
On the outside, the front and back halves often do not meet flush at the spot where the stand connects. The battery door tends to warp. Look closely to the wear on the knobs (especially the volume knob) to determine the amount of use the radio received. Real nice examples still have a white painted pointer on the volume and tuning knobs. Watch out for missing lettering under these knobs as there were no collars to protect them.

Model B
Second generation owls (model B) have most of the same exterior concerns as the hand wired. Look out for wear to the lettering by the volume knob as this did not have a collar yet. Check the knobs for wear, especially the volume knob. Real nice examples still have a white painted a pointer on the volume knob (a black pointer on white versions). Again, the front and back halves often do not meet flush at the spot where the stand connects. This problem was corrected with the model D.
Zenith continued to get transistors from other suppliers to help keep up with demand, so knowing the chassis of your radio is again important. The printed circuit chassis name now has a “Z” as the second character replacing the “X”. The three possible chassis versions in the model B are 7zt40 with Texas Instrument transistors, 7zt40z1 with Sylvania transistors, and 7zt40z with Raytheon transistors. Again, there is no data from Zenith on the how many of each chassis type they produced, but I would guess about 65% were 7zt40, 30% were 7zt40z1, and maybe 5% were 7zt40z. Does this support your findings? Chassis version again can influence the value.

Model D
I look closely at the words Long Distance on the front and the printing on the back to determine the amount of wear the model D has received.

Model E
The gold metal faceplate was quite attractive when new, but quickly showed wear by the knobs with use. Also, they would become damaged the first time they were put into their carrying case as the snap assembly would scratch the faceplate by the word “Long”. The pointed cone grills tended to corrode, but the mesh grills are usually fine.

Model H
Watch for wear around the rim of the large oval grill and corrosion to the grill itself. Also, it is common to find wear on the gold shelf by the tuning and volume knobs. The gold nameplate badge at the top should be bright gold, but many have lost their color or been damaged from wear. There are many opportunities for chips on this model. Check the top and bottom corners closely, especially on white models for some reason. These areas are where the plastic is the thinnest and chipping can occur if care is not taken when putting the two halves back together. Also check for chipping by the earphone plug. A plus is getting a model H with the blue dot disc still on the volume knob.

Leather portables
Check the condition of the leather case as many have become dry and brittle or stained over the years. Check for cracks, wear, and discoloration closely, especially the handle and snaps. Pay close attention to the stitching to judge the overall wear to these sets. Many of the backs have split at the point where it opens to change the batteries.

Royal 800’s
The back section often warps from being pulled off wrong. They should be opened by grabbing the back at the top and in the middle where the clasp is, not at the corners. The large grill dents easily and sometimes has some spots of corrosion. This is considered a scarce model!

32 thoughts on “What to Watch Out for when buying transistor radios”

  1. Would like more information about leather cases. Have seen several styles with different flaps. I assume they are interchangeable but that each style was designed for a specific 500 knob configuration. Also, I remember having a real leather case with my early 500 but the case I have now for my 500 Long Distance almost seams like some sort of leather imitation and is fragile at the hinge area. A real leather case would not have this problem.

  2. Ron,

    Thanks for your question. There are two different cases that the Long Distance 500’s had. I believe the later ones came with the synthetic leather case which got brittle with age. The leather ones were offered with early “D’s” and earlier versions of the owls as well.
    The 500″E’s” had synthetic leather cases as well with two large holes for the knobs. As a rule, any cases made starting around 1959 or later was of a lesser quality. For more info, check out the section specifically on cases. Thanks again, Gary

  3. An interesting ‘hybrid’ 500 appears between serial number 90,000 and 120,000 still has the metal/handwired chassis but has the ‘B’ style knobs and vernier tuning capacitor. So far, I have three of these, one in each of white, maroon and black and they all have a thin black station pointer instead of the wide white one. All three also have a green 7XT40Z1 label. I suspect only a couple thousand of these were made, making this ‘hybrid’ or ‘AB’ model the rarest of the 500’s. Has anyone else noticed these in their collection?

  4. I have had a few of these myself with the latest serial # being 121,707. They do have the thin black line on the plastic tuner knob and I believe they have all been the 7xt40z1 chassis also.

    But beware, just because you get an early B model with a black pointer line does not assure that it will have a metal handwired chassis.

    Thanks Phil for your observation. Gary

  5. I have a zenith royal 90 radio, still in the box with operating instructions. It looks to be in really good condition. Can you tell me how much it might be worth?

  6. Gary, Nice site!!! I was at an antique store, and bought a Zenith 500N, chassis # 8NT40Z9. It was only $5 and looks and works well. I can assume that this is the NG radio there you mentioned. O well!
    I’m trying to find a least a picture of a radio from my childhood. It was probably a Silvertone from the late 50’s, ac-dc, tubes, blue plastic, removable knobs on either side that when removed exposed latches to open hinged front. It used two batteries, one short and square the other tall and oval.

  7. Gary, any source of parts for my Sylvania 4P19W radio, especially the potentiometer? Thanks, Greg

  8. Hi Gary
    I think I have met you a few times at the NARC Minneapolis.I just bought a Raytheon T-150 on ebay that works.I also have another one in black and red from a Pavek swap meet.I took it apart the other day and there was some wires that were shorted and now it works.My question to you is I also have one of the rare Swiss Raytheon (Brass) radios that I am thinking of selling.Would you or do you know of someone that might be interest in buying it.I would think it might be worth $250-$300.00 What do you think?

    1. You are so right Aaron. The early batteries had a shorter life and higher leak rate than current batteries. Also, despite all the warnings in operating guides, it was common for people to set a radio aside for a while with the batteries left in, and forget about them. Damage would ultimately result from such an action. Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you.

  9. I have a Zenith Royal 400 that my father bought for me in I think 1965. I put batteries in it and it does not seem to work. The gold grill is in good shape with no dents or any damage. There is some stain from what appears to be where tape was applied. There are broken places on both top corners about 1/2X1/8″ The Zenith emblem is still attached. At the bottom below the grill is a space where once something was attached but is now missing. Is this item worth anything to anyone? Thanks for your time.

    1. Hi David,
      The problems you cited with your radio are common with the Royal 400 model. The radio as it is does not have much value. It does not play so you cannot even listen to it and visually it is incomplete. If you were interested, I could help to restore it because I have parts for that model. With a working chassis, the name plate at the bottom, and the cabinet all cleaned up, it would be able to look and sound good again. Let me know if that interests you and I will quote you an estimate. Gary

  10. Since I had a 1959 Zenith Royal 675 as a kid I’ve always had a fondness for that model. I have two working examples purchased from eBay awhile back. As you said the cabinets are a big problem. Does anyone have a solution to this? Is there a way to fabricate a new cabinet? It would probably be cost prohibitive.

    One observation: The radios with the genuine leather cabinets hold up better than the imitation Permawear cabinets like the 675 has.

      1. Fred, not all royal 500’s with a black station indicator were hybrids. This one has a PCB, and another clue is the chassis ID is 7ZT40, where all hand wired chassis are 7XT40, or 7XT40Z1, or the ultra rare 7XT40Z. The case is a mis-match, probably from a 500E. Thanks, Gary
  11. Hey, thanks for getting back to me. I thought the black station indicator must be somewhat unique on this model as all of the other 7ZT40’s I’ve seen have white indicators, but I guess not.

  12. I just placed my first order with you a couple of days ago. you have some really nice stuff. I have a question. Will a Royal 500B back and battery fit on 500D radio? Thanks.

    1. Hi Michael and thank you for your order. We need to find you 500D parts for your 500D radio because the location of the battery door screw is different due to a change in the speaker used. Let me see what I can find for you. Thanks again, Gary

  13. My in-laws passed away and we are going thru their stuff, I have what looks like a Zenith Royal 500B in very good condition. I have pictures if interested. Do you know if anyone would be interested in buying this? We also have a Modernage model 612 with a leather carrying case. If needed, my phone number is 404-316-0370.

  14. Hi Gary.. I have a Royal 500. I put some batteries in it… then got them in in the right order.. and the radio works. I was wondering if you had any advice on improving the volume. I can’t get much volume from my mom’s old radio. It would be cool to pull it out and play it at a sporting event or picnic.

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for your question. This is a common problem with transistor radios produced prior to the early 60’s. The volume and tone can usually can be resolved by replacing the dried out original paper electrolytic capacitors with modern plastic sealed ones. Finding guys who work on transistor radios can be a challenge, however, if you want to pursue this fix, I can help. If my talents are not able to get the job done, I know others that I could forward your radio to. Thanks again, Gary

    2. Gary,
      Thanks for passing on your knowledge of the Zenith Radio Gary. I find the Radio has volume issues. I know Transistors aren’t meant to have a high volume output.This is a hobby for me, I am having a blast buying a nice collection I can appreciate and admire, thank you for sharing your knowledge of Radios 📻

      Neil Noble

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